Saturday, September 19, 2015

Writing and Success: A Rant

Yesterday I, and presumably many other writers, received an email from a person doing a research project. This person said that he or she had "been collecting information on authors who've appeared in the various prize anthologies (Best American Short Stories/Essays/Poems, O. Henry, Pushcart) with an eye toward being able to produce a ranking of MFA programs based on the production of the graduates of those programs." He or she "was inspired to do this because of a probably forgotten now controversy about the Poets and Writers rankings and [his or her] belief that really the purpose of an MFA should be to produce people who were better writers and that the prize anthologies were a decent proxy for determining who was producing the best writing." While the emailer did admit that they were a "limited" proxy, he or she had concluded that, "with the spare time I have to dedicate to the project, nothing else was viable." Because my name had appeared in Best American Essays, 2013, I was a candidate for the project.

This email arrived when I was in the middle of making dinner. I had been expecting a message from my son about whether or not he would need to be picked up from school after the football game; so at the moment of receipt, the ironic disconnect between my own homely concerns and this researcher's blanket assumptions seemed particularly eyebrow-twitching. This morning I feel somewhat less cynical, but not a whole lot less.

I have never taken a single graduate course, but I've managed to do okay without an advanced degree. I'm not arguing for or against MFAs, simply saying that I don't have one. So why does this stupid issue keep coming up? Even my most obvious mainstream public successes (which, I want to emphasize, are not by any means my proudest moments as a writer) can now be couched as freaky accidents. I'm like the lab rat that doesn't support the scientific findings, and this irritates me to no end. Meanwhile, all the people with MFAs who don't win obvious mainstream public prizes are now prompted to feel like giant failures. How is this a good thing for any writer, either inside or outside the academy?

Yes, it's pleasant to win a prize. Occasionally the prize even helps pay for groceries, which is especially gratifying. But prizes are not anywhere close to the heart of the matter, and that's what disturbing me today. Where is the researcher who focuses on writing for the sake of writing? On living inside the art? On teaching as a way to lead one's students into deep engagement with the world? Why must success continue to be quantified as "WON A BIG PRIZE" rather than "FIGURED SOMETHING OUT"? This is exactly what leads the Michael Derrick Hudsons of the world to manipulate their way into the prize system . . . because they have been trained up to believe in this ugly version of success.

I am so disheartened.


David (n of 49) said...

Alice Munro has no graduate degrees of any kind (that I'm aware of, anyway, unless they're honorary), and yet earned a Nobel. (And even the Nobel has plenty of winners almost no one knows or has heard of again.) You are right--it/they are not the point. "Ne desesperez pas."

Thomas said...

The problem results from the increasing corporatization of universities and colleges, which in their struggle to compete with one another need to tout their success. MFAs are a perfect example of this: they are money-making operations for universities and have spread all over. How to attract the dollars of these students? Show them the "successful" track record. It's a vicious cycle that has nothing to do with actual merit. The dark side of being independent of that three ring circus is that it is all to easy to let the static from the hum of the "poetry biz" infect your own sense of merit and worth. It simply isn't so. It's no accident, Dawn, that you are constantly drawn to the poets of the past: they are the ones who have stood the test of time not because of their credentials but because of their worth to the readers who have come after them. That's your lineage; those are whom you stand amongst.

Dawn Potter said...

I agree with you about the corporatization, Thomas; yet as soon as I say so, I'm liable to hear from someone in an MFA program who believes that I am dissing her choice and their joy. I don't know how to say this any more clearly: I love teachers and I love students and I love literature. Some people find that joy in a formal program; others do not. The wonderful thing is that there are multiple ways to find joy. The terrible thing is the marketing of success.